What Medieval Traditions Can Mardi Gras Be Traced Back To?

Mardi Gras floats borrow traditions from medieval European celebrations.
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Mardi Gras means "Fat Tuesday" and reminds celebrants that it takes place the day before Lent begins. Lent signals a time for Christians to fast; Mardi Gras, also known as Shrove Tuesday, Pancake Day and Carnival, is the day to eat rich food, have fun, make merry and revel before the period of religious fasting. Modern partygoers take group affiliations that model the villages or castle towns of the medieval period.The groups known as krewes (pronounced “crew”) focus on celebrations that feature floats, dances and dining, but krewe members also join the party during official Mardi Gras celebrations.

1 Carnival Celebrations

Medieval carnival celebrations for Mardi Gras incorporated parades, costumes, dancing, songs and large quantities of food and drink. Carnival takes inspiration from the Latin term "carnelevarium," or a celebration encouraging carnal desires and activities. As the Middle Ages moved away from overtly religious observances, carnival celebrations became more secular and focused on partying. The celebrants joined the official carnival performers, creating a massive spectacle for play and enjoyment. Modern Mardi Gras revelers adopt this tradition of feasting and merrymaking.

2 Pancake Meals

Pancake Day, also called Pancake Tuesday or Shrove Tuesday, marks the first day of Lent. Meals and entertainment feature races in which runners toss and flip pancakes while running. Lent fasts banned eating rich and fatty foods, and the official celebrations during the medieval period featured foods with the banned-during-Lent ingredients of egg, meat, cheese, butter and sugar. Cooks made a pastry of moist dough dunked into hot fat. Modern Mardi Gras parties feature crepes, pancakes, beignets and donuts, as well as sauce-covered meats and cheeses.

3 Begging Tradition

Behavior at modern-day Fat Tuesday parades has a basis in medieval celebrations. French towns celebrated the Feast of Fools with elaborate theater productions that encouraged audience participation. Immigrants to Louisiana from France brought the feast and theater traditions to New Orleans in 1699. The begging traditions also trace back to ancient practices. Medieval lords handed out coins and small cakes to area villagers, a tradition that continues during the modern Mardi Gras in the krewe coin distribution and eating of king cakes made for the celebrations. Modern Mardi Gras revelers beg for the parading krewes to throw necklace beads, plastic coins and trinkets from the floats and balconies and then add the gifts as layers of beads, feathers and decorations to costumes.

4 Royalty Influence

Middle Ages Mardi Gras celebrations recognized new knights of the French court, and the king held banquets to honor the recruits. Today New Orleans celebrants pledge allegiance to the krewes of the city, wear symbols of the different krewes and eat cake with green, yellow and purple icing to represent the justice, faith and power of the knight's oath and the magi, or wise men, searching for the baby Jesus. Medieval cakes hid a bean, pea, ring or a tiny baby Jesus that signaled a person who was deemed to be royalty for the village carnival or to indicate good luck for the partygoer who found the item in his or her dessert, a tradition that continues today. Crescent City parade floats feature the kings and queens who receive crowns at the elaborate krewe balls and parties.

Lee Grayson has worked as a freelance writer since 2000. Her articles have appeared in publications for Oxford and Harvard University presses and research publishers, including Facts On File and ABC-CLIO. Grayson holds certificates from the University of California campuses at Irvine and San Diego.